Kurt Vonnegut is a unique voice in the American canon—a writer whose works are hard to categorize, often straddling the space between literature and science fiction, and filled with cutting satire and dark humor. Like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut's reputation and impact on American writing and reading will continue to grow steadily and increase in relevance as new insights are made.
Vonnegut was born in 1922 in Indianapolis, and studied at the University of Chicago and the University of Tennessee. In the Second World War, he became a German prisoner of war and was present during the bombing of Dresden. This experience provided inspiration for his most successful and influential novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut—admired as much for his views and his "Vonnegutisms" as for his publications—wrote extensively in many forms, including novels, short stories, essays, plays, articles, speeches, and correspondence, some of which was published posthumously.
A lifelong friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s, Dan Wakefield both edited and wrote the Introduction to the bestselling collection of Vonnegut's personal correspondence, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. In addition, Wakefield is the author of the memoir New York in the Fifties, which was made into a documentary film, as well as Returning: A Spiritual Journey. He created the NBC prime time series "James at Fifteen" and wrote the script for the movie based on his novel Going All The Way, starring Ben Affleck.
I had an uncle who left his hometown and the family business there to become a fine actor. His talent was a minor one, but a pretty one. It lasted for fifteen years and was gone. He came home with the ashes of it and died twenty years later, poor and, as it happened, drunk.
Previously unpublished, brilliant and deeply personal, Sinbad is Kurt Vonnegut’s story of a young man who decides, against the wishes of his family, to leave home to pursue life as a painter. The result is a picaresque as bizarre and imaginative as any of Vonnegut’s most beloved stories.
Second only to Slaughterhouse-Five of Vonnegut’s canon in its prominence and influence, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) presents Eliot Rosewater, an itinerant, semi-crazed millionaire wandering the country in search of heritage and philanthropic outcome, introducing the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout to the world and Vonnegut to the collegiate audience which would soon make him a cult writer.
Trout, modeled according to Vonnegut on the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (with whom Vonnegut had an occasional relationship) is a desperate, impoverished but visionary hack writer who functions for Eliot Rosewater as both conscience and horrid example. Rosewater, seeking to put his inheritance to some meaningful use (his father was an entrepreneur), tries to do good within the context of almost illimitable cynicism and corruption.
It is in this novel that Rosewater wanders into a science fiction conference--an actual annual event in Milford, Pennsylvania--and at the motel delivers his famous monologue evoked by science fiction writers and critics for almost half a century: "None of you can write for sour apples... but you’re the only people trying to come to terms with the really terrific things which are happening today." Money does not drive Mr. Rosewater (or the corrupt lawyer who tries to shape the Rosewater fortune) so much as outrage at the human condition.
The novel was adapted for a 1979 Alan Menken musical.
Bluebeard, published in 1987, is Vonnegut’s meditation on art, artists, surrealism, and disaster. Meet Rabo Karabekian, a moderately successful surrealist painter, who we meet late in life and see struggling (like all of Vonnegut’s key characters), with the dregs of unresolved pain and the consequences of brutality. Loosely based on the legend of Bluebeard (best realized in Bela Bartok’s one-act opera), the novel follows Karabekian through the last events in his life that is heavy with women, painting, artistic ambition, artistic fraudulence, and as of yet unknown consequence.
Vonnegut’s intention here is not so much satirical (although the contemporary art scene would be easy enough to deconstruct), nor is it documentary (although Karabekian does carry elements of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko). Instead, Vonnegut is using art for the same purpose he used science fiction cliches in Slaughterhouse-Five; as a filter through which he can illuminate the savagery, cruelty, and the essentially comic misdirection of human existence.
Readers will recognize familiar Vonnegut character types and archetypes as they drift in and out through the background; meanwhile, Karabekian, betrayed and betrayer, sinks through a bottomless haze of recollection. Like most of Vonnegut’s late works, this is both science fiction and cruel contemporary realism at once, using science fiction as metaphor for human damage as well as failure to perceive. Readers will find that Vonnegut’s protagonists can never really clarify for us whether they are ultimately unwitting victims or simple barbarians, leaving it up to the reader to determine in which genre this book really fits, if any at all.
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